Credit: Anna Patarakina/Bleecker Street
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Genre Views

The Lesson — Alice Troughton

July 12, 2023

Two parts simmering battle of wills between a pair of strong-willed authors, one part bone-dry autocritique of its own exquisite corpse-like premise, Alice Troughton’s The Lesson functions as classy comfort food shrewdly counter-programmed for the dog days of summer. Almost exclusively set at a tastefully adorned estate in the British countryside, and primarily built around four main characters, the film recalls the sort of modest productions undertaken during Covid, while avoiding the tendency to appear under-conceived or visually functional the way many pandemic-set films often were. Rather, The Lesson spins up a twisty literary mystery undergirded by simmering resentment and emotional abuse, featuring a towering and acidic performance from star Richard E. Grant at its center. And while the film perhaps leans a bit too heavily on its novelistic themes and heavy-handed metaphors, it offers up the cinematic equivalent of a sturdy beach read.

The Lesson’s true lead is the Irish actor Daryl McCormack (Good Luck to You, Leo Grande) as Liam, an aspiring writer working as an in-demand tutor for the children of England’s wealthy and elite. Liam is summoned to the country home of semi-reclusive literary titan J.M. Sinclair (Grant) and his wife, Hélène (Julie Delpy), where he’s offered a job to move into the estate and help their teenage son, Bertie (Stephen McMillan), prepare for his Oxford entry exams. Sinclair hasn’t published anything in the two years since his eldest son, Felix, committed suicide on the estate grounds, and despite all claims to the contrary, he doesn’t appear to be taking his boy’s death well — in flashback, we watch the novelist storming off during a public interview after the topic of how grief affects his writing is raised. But in Bertie’s new tutor, J.M. finds a true acolyte. 

The celebrated author is an emotionally withholding taskmaster, berating his surviving son for being an intellectual lightweight and diminishing Hélène as both a mother and art dealer, all while holding court during chilly meals at the dinner table, seemingly the only time he leaves the isolation of his study. Yet in Liam, Sinclair discovers a useful confidant; someone equally adept at fixing his printer, distilling how he’s currently viewed in literary circles, and reciting sonnets in chapter and verse — the character demures as to the question of whether he has a photographic memory, but it functions as such when it comes to the written word. So when the time comes for J.M. to present a draft of his eagerly anticipated new novel, he selects his son’s tutor to be the first to lay eyes upon it. Liam happily agrees, with one small condition: that Sinclair return the favor and offer feedback on Liam’s first novel, having himself just completed it.

It’s worth noting here how early and often Grant’s character speaks the refrain, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal” (the line itself is appropriated from T.S. Eliot), which waves a pretty large flag as to where this might all be heading. It’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t end up precisely where we expect. Liam gushes about the new novel, marveling at the exciting new direction the work represents for the famed author, while also noting, constructively, that its final third is stylistically incongruous with the rest of the book and perhaps requires further attention. For his troubles, Liam’s own writing is trashed by Sinclair: he’s decried as a glorified proofreader and middling talent, unworthy of offering an actual opinion to someone of his stature. Savaged by his idol and hemmed in by the onerous terms of his employment contract, Liam has no choice but to remain on the grounds and continue tutoring Bertie over the summer. However, an opportunity to make himself indispensable, or perhaps exact a measure of revenge, emerges when Liam uncovers the surprising provenance of Sinclair’s inspiration and puts in place a plan that will call upon his unique ability to memorize volumes-worth of text.

For much of its runtime, The Lesson operates as a suitably gripping, albeit incident-free, study of living under the yoke of a manipulative tyrant, with Grant able to suck the oxygen out of any room while rarely raising his voice. Delpy and McMillan adopt a posture located somewhere between abuse victims and willing prisoners, with McCormack, functioning as hired help, forced to look on silently as Grant unleashes his barbed tongue on his family (and not strictly metaphorically either: for reasons that we’re left to infer, Sinclair likes to perform cunnilingus on Hélène as she sits on the edge of his desk, and in direct line of sight of Liam’s bedroom window). The ghost of Felix hangs heavily over the estate — not literally, although there is at least one Tár-esque, practically subliminal, shot that muddies the waters a bit — from the murky pond where he drowned himself to the rhododendron in the garden that he favored; although, as Bertie points out, the plant has a nasty tendency to suffocate the life out of everything that grows near it. Based on what we see of Sinclair’s parenting style, as well as how his claws come out when confronted by another author in the house, we can assume much about what led Felix to take his life, as well as the heavy toll it took on his father, all of which lays the groundwork for Liam’s scheme.

It’s thematically apt, then — if too clever by half — that in a film where characters bemoan the shoddy, discordant conclusion to a story, The Lesson becomes altogether more conventionally dramatic in its third act. Almost imperceptible glances of longing spiral into all-out extramarital affairs, as the film’s pace quickens and violence evolves from strictly psychological to actual. The characters begin to feel like chess pieces being moved around the board by an unseen hand, as if the film were imposing a more “commercially viable” ending upon itself; wilfully disregarding logic and established behavior to provide a send-off that’s perhaps more traditionally thrilling, but also a bit common and rather silly. It doesn’t feel like a stretch to argue this is very much by design, a meta-commentary on a story about collaboration, multiple authors, and the difficulty of crafting a rewarding ending. Unfortunately, it all plays less like an Adaptation-style swing for the fences about the challenges of corralling difficult material or the lure of Hollywood conventions, and more like a cheeky, “get out of jail free” card, acknowledging its structural shortcomings by simply doubling down on them.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 27